Chelsea seem to be the perfect example of turmoil and hardship. Having already paid 15 million pounds to secure the services of highly rated Andre Villas Boas, the Blues looked to have procured one of the best young managers in the world.
Yet Villas Boas found himself another victim of the Abramovich chopping block after a series of negative displays. New interim manager Robert Di Matteo has steadied the ship somewhat, guiding Chelsea through to the semi finals and in the process, becoming England’s only remaining team in this year’s Champions League. However, the road to obtaining their first ever Champions League trophy has hit a bump, or rather a mountain in this case. Chelsea face defending champions Barcelona, the best team in the world.
This is not the first time Chelsea have met Barcelona in European competition. Who could forget that faithful night on 6 May 2009? Chelsea had done well to produce a 0-0 draw at the Nou Camp and went into the second leg at Stamford Bridge confident and ready to book a place for their 2nd Champions league final appearance. Unfortunately, what came next was a horrible display of refereeing and squandered chances. The Main Culprit, none other than Tom Henning Ovrebo, who rejected four clear penalty decisions. This was further supplemented with the decision to give a red card to Barcelona’s left back Eric Abidal, rounding off a bad day at the office. Chelsea were also guilty on their part for failing to convert their chances. Drogba failed to finish 2 clear cut chances including a volley which went straight at Victor Valdes from 16 yards. Also, the sending off of Abidal was a gift that they failed to capitalise on.
In a game of poor refereeing and negative football (Chelsea’s decision to destroy game flow with cynical fouls) , it took Barcelona’s first shot on target for the whole match to score their only goal, how clinical and terribly efficient. One can also remember the explosive and scathing tirade of Didier Drogba after the match. His famous words of ” its a f***ing disgrace, UEFA is a f***ing disgrace” embodied the true feelings of Chelsea fans that night. Without a doubt, Chelsea fans were the first to vehemently accuse UEFA for prejudice against Barcelona. However as the camera panned over to the faces of other Chelsea players, one cant help by notice the disappointment in their eyes, the realisation that despite Ovrebo’s mistakes, they should have been the victors that night.
That being said, positives can be taken from that night in 2009. Guus Hiddink pulled a tactical masterclass in both legs with his controversial but effective tactic in nullifying Barcelona’s attacking play. His decision to maintain a strict defensive mindset denied Barcelona the space they needed to excel. With literally nine players defending, Chelsea aimed to hit back on the counter, using long balls for Didier Drogba to chase onto or using his hold up play to fashion out chances for themselves. Chelsea also used a series of well placed fouls to interrupt and break up game play. Messi bore the brunt of the challenges as Ashley Cole and Michael Essien stepped in to ensure the Argentinean never got off to full speed. John Terry and Alex kept Samuel Eto in check while Bosingwa held his own on the right. Their defense was so effective that Barcelona only had one shot on target which came in the 93rd minute; that shot by Iniesta resulted in the goal that took them through to the finals.
While Barcelona have grown from strength to strength since then. Chelsea have regressed and now look a shadow of their former selves. From that night in 2009, only Bosingwa, Terry, Drogba, Lampard, Essien and Malouda remain. Out of the six, four are aged 30 and above, way past their prime. However, despite the odds, there is still hope for a victory due to the following factors.
The return of Michael Essien
The Ghanian has rejoined the Chelsea side after a long spell on the sidelines. While his terrifying stamina and aggressive playing style has given him the nickname “The Bison”, some fear that his struggle with injuries will prevent Essien from reaching his once great heights. A seasoned veteran and scorer of the ridiculous 25 yard volley against Barcelona in 2009, Essien’s dominance in midfield is key to nullify Barcelona’s midfield threat. As it stands, Essien is Chelsea’s most accomplished defensive midfielder. While Mikel has proven a capable deputy, Essien’s reading of the game and ability to cope under pressure will definitely be a welcome edition for Robert Di Matteo. With Essien at the base of the midfield, Chelsea has someone who could screen their back four and launch counter attacks.
The emergence of David Luiz
While it remains without doubt that John Terry is the undisputed leader and heart beat of the Chelsea side, David Luiz’s has seen an improvement in form recently. This is in contrast to horrible showings earlier in the season, prompting Gary Nevile to comment that “he plays as if he was controlled by a 10 year old boy playing FIFA”. The Brazilian defender has shown better tactical awareness and supplements that with great attacking impetuous. When on song, David Luiz provides a whole new dimension to Chelsea’s attack, with incisive through balls from the back and devastating runs, topping that up with assured defending alongside Terry. He also has a knack for scoring brilliant goals and that would come in handy against Barcelona. Unfortuately, the brazillian succumbed to a Hamstring injury in Chelseas 5-1 win against Tottenham. Chelsea fans are keeping their fingers crossed in hope that he can recover in time for the match against Barcelona.
The creativity of Juan Mata
Juan Mata has been nothing short of a revelation during his time at Chelsea. The former Valencia winger has fitted seamlessly into the team. Becoming the main attacking and creative outlet of the team. His probing runs and clever passing has seem him create more chances than any other Chelsea player this season. His finishing skills has also seen him score many good goals. As Chelsea’s most dangerous player, Barcelona will have to take note of him.
The resurgent Torres
Since his 50 million pound move from Liverpool, the striker has gone through his worst spell of 24 hours without a goal. However, his luck has changed and with new interim manager Robert Di Matteo, the Spaniard is regaining his scoring touch, just in time for crunch time against Barcelona. While the Striker still needs a confidence boost, his ability as one of the top finishers in the game is undeniable. Torres remains top choice to lead Chelsea’s attack compared to the ageing Didier Drogba. Despite a tough Barcelona defence lead by Puyol, Torres’ pace and finishing could be the game changer for Chelsea.
The Serbian has been a consistent performer this season. While others have stuttered and sunk in form, the Serbian remains as Chelsea’s undisputed and best right back despite being a natural center back. Ivanovic has chipped in huge contributions since Robert Di Matteo took over, scoring the winner against Napoli, two goals against Aston Villa and the opener against Wigan. An impressive record of 4 goals in 7 games. The defender is solid at the back and possesses good pace, a key factor in keeping up with Barcelona’s fast flowing Football. The Serbian’s rich vein of form is a welcome addition to the London side, reinforcing their defence.
Wildcard Daniel Sturridge
Daniel Sturridge has emerged as one of the leading lights of a lacklustre Chelsea side this season. However, the striker’s form has decreased lately and has been widely critcized for his selfishness and poor final ball. Although Ramires is capable of playing on the right wing, the pace and attacking threat Sturridge provides is crucial if Chelsea are to win. When on form, Sturridge is unplayable. His breathtaking pace and excellent left footed shot would definitely pose a threat to Barcelona’s left back, a position which they are weakest at. Just like how Theo Walcott exposed the Barcelona back line with his terrifying pace, Sturridge can perform that task. The only question would be whether he can step up to the occasion.
Tactics also come into the question when facing Barcelona. Known for their “Total football” , the Blues will definitely have to concede possession to them and instead attack them on the break. Fast forwards such as Sturridge and Kalou are key to this. Furthermore, Chelsea has to stop Messi, a dangerous striker playing in a False 9 position. While Essien can hold off the midfield threat, John Terry and his parthner have to make sure they are not exposed by Messi’s pace and dribbling. As many teams will testify, give the Argentinean a half chance and he will score. Most importantly, Chelsea cannot waste their chances or lose focus as that will come back to bite them, just like what happened on 6 May 2009.
The Chelsea team will face the best team in the world on Wednesday. Many have already written them off and one cannot fault Chelsea fans for doubting their team. Nonetheless, the history of football has seen cases where the underdogs pull off the impossible, such is the beauty of the game and such a thing could happen on Wednesday. Chelsea have to bring their best form to the table, whether that will be enough remains to be seen.